Field Madder plant showing tiny pink four petaled flowers

Natures Rainbow Garden Update – Spring 2019

By Ashley Walker
Copyright 8th May 2019

The weather here has followed the pattern of recent springs by being dry, sunny and warm with cold intervals and frosty nights. Planting out of the Japanese indigo will have to wait for a week or two yet but most plants are thriving. Time to look at last year’s plantings and make an assessment of what has worked and what has not. Last year we embarked on growing a number of new plants, many of which are relatives of Common Madder. Of course many folks have said “What on earth are you doing that for? There is no better plant than Common Madder!” That of course is true but in the past many of these madder relatives were used as dye plants and prized for their colours so we thought we’d try and find out for ourselves how easy they are to grow and eventually what colours their roots will yield.

Wild Madder Rubia peregrina

We first started with Wild Madder (Rubia peregrina) three years ago now. Spring frosts have been particularly hard on the plants as their evergreen upper leaves are not particularly frost hardy.

Browned and crisped frost damaged evergreen leaves of Wild madder, Rubia peregrina.

Frost damaged evergreen leaves of Wild Madder.

Their native UK homelands are the southern coastline of Devon, Cornwall and Wales where they get warm sea breezes that usually prevent frosts, so here in Hertfordshire they are a bit out of their depth. However the roots are protected and soon shoot back once the warm weather returns. Getting a good harvest from the plant is going to take time, even without frosts it’s very slow growing so we’re not planning to dig any up until Autumn this year.

Shoot of Common Madder (Rubia tinctorum) showing browned shoot as a result of frost damage.

For the first time in many years our Common Madder shoots were badly frosted. Not a problem as the plants quickly produce new shoots

Even our Common Madder beds were badly affected by the frosts with many of the new shoots being crisped.

Field Madder Sherardia arvensis & Hedge Bedstraw Galium mollugo

Field Madder Sherardia arvensis A cushion of Field Madder growing under a Weld plant with Sawort to the left. This plant self seeded last year and has come through the winter without any frost or snow damage.

A cushion of Field Madder growing under a Weld plant with Sawort to the left. This plant self seeded last year and has come through the winter without any frost or snow damage.

Generally described as an annual weed, we discovered that given plenty of attention this plant is perfectly capable of going through the winter and withstanding any frosts. Does this make it a short lived perennial? Many hardy annuals can do this and provided they are watered and fed can keep on growing. As this plant has very thin roots, getting a harvest is obviously going to be a bit of a test so we’ve decided to do a little experiment by growing Field Madder and another similar relative Hedge Bedstraw Galium mollugo in large pots in a compost mix that should be easy to wash away from the roots at the end of the year.

Large plant pot containing seedlings of Field Madder Sherardia arvensis

Large pot with seedlings of Field Madder.

Hedge Bedstraw Galium mollugo

Large pot of Hedge Bedstraw seedlings.

Dyer’s Woodruff Asperula tinctoria

Over the winter I managed to get hold of some seeds from Rühlemann’s in Germany but unfortunately none of these have thus far germinated. As a native of the northern steppe lands of Europe and Asia this may mean they need vernalization. Some of the plants we obtained from Scottish plant nursery (Poyntzfield Herb Nursery)  died towards the end of last year. Plants placed in an ericaceous compost in tubs seemed to do better than those planted in the chalky soil of our Nature’s Rainbow dye garden. This goes against the generally accepted advice that the plant likes alkaline soils. However, It may be other factors were involved. All of our plants died back really quite early in the year and we were afraid they might die out altogether, but back they have come this Spring and they look quite healthy. They have reappeared at the edge of the planters, showing that last year they tried to expand by producing underground stems much like Common Madder. I guess that this means they are capable of also being quite invasive!

Feathery Green shoots of Dyers Woodruff Asperula tinctoria

New shoots of Dyer’s Woodruff in the alkaline soil of our dye garden.

Ladies Bedstraw Galium verum

This plant has done really well in a whole variety of settings and soil types. It’s also very well behaved with minimal spread. It looks good throughout the year, with pretty clumps of feathery foliage followed by a spray of small yellow flowers in the summer. With its historic interest as a bedding straw, its use in dyeing  and its versatility as an ornamental garden plant, I feel that this plant is a must for any dye garden.

Feathery green clumps of Ladies Bedstraw Galium verum growing next to the greenhouse.

Clumps of feathery green Ladies Bedstraw growing by the greenhouse.

Alder Buckthorn Rhamnus frangula & Purging Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica

Alder Buckthorn Rhamnus frangula. New shoot showing "alder " shaped leaves and blossom buds.

New growth of Alder Buckthorn.

New growth of Purging Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica

New growth of Purging Buckthorn.

We tried planting Alder Buckthorn, an acid soil loving shrub, in a variety of conditions. Those planted in ericaceous beds or tubs have done well but those planted out in a wild setting in the chalk soil here have suffered greatly, though it has to be said, the most damage was done by muntjac deer who clearly have a liking for it.
The Purging Buckthorn did less well, to my surprise. It’s not supposed to be fussy about soil type. No casualties, but the plants have not grown very much in the last year. Although it could be that this plant simply takes longer to get established. The new growth this year looks a lot better.

As yet the plants are too small to risk any harvesting but I suspect it is the Alder Buckthorn that will give the better dye.

Tibetan Madder Rubia Cordifolia (Indian Madder or Munjeet)

We are now the proud owners of one of these plants. Obtained from the German Herb nursery Rühlemann’s, this plant spent four and a half days in a box being transported across Europe, the English Channel and finally to our door and arrived in perfect condition! Many thanks to Rühlemann’s  for doing such a professional job of packaging it up, we have great admiration! The growing tips had faded a little during transit but greened up rapidly on exposure to light.
According to the literature these rather elegant looking plants should just be able to survive outside in the UK, though I’m not taking any chances until I’ve had a chance to propagate some cuttings.  At first sight it looks quite different to Common Madder but it has the same leaf whorls (but only 4 leaves to a whorl as opposed to Common Madder’s 4 to 6) and has hooks on the square and weak stems just like madder and cleavers. It obviously has the same growing strategy i.e. it clambers over other plants, holding on with its small hooks.

Tibetan Madder Rubia Cordifolia (Indian Madder or Munjeet)

The Munjeet plant about a week after arriving. Repotted to a larger pot and already starting to grow and looking very healthy indeed

Rubia Cordifolia plant just after delivery and repotting

Rubia Cordifolia plant just after delivery and repotting

We are ridiculously excited by this latest acquisition and look forward to see how it grows and what sort of dye giving roots it has. According to Cardon* its chief dye substance is munjistin which gives a very bright orange. Like common madder it also contains many other dye stuffs, including a very large range of yellow to red anthraquinones. Alizarin is present but only in small amounts so the overall light fastness is probably not as good. Cardon mentions that there are different varieties of cordifolia as well as a very closely related species (Rubia akane) that grows in Japan. Our plant is advertised as being from Tibet, so hopefully it will be able to cope with frost during the winter.

Self-seeding

Bed of hundreds of tiny self seeded Weld seedlings

A mass of tiny self-seeded Weld seedlings in the dye garden

Cota tinctoria

Self-seeded Dyers Chamomile seedlings

 

Madder Seedlings Rubia tinctorum

This year we have had a number of self-seeded Common Madder seedlings in planters positioned near the house. They have produced seedlings in the garden during the Autumn before now, but these usually die during the winter. I think the weather has been just right this year to encourage spring germination and the temperatures near the house have prevented any frost damage.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally a little note on self-seeding of dye plants. We have always tried to encourage plants to self-seed in our garden, with some success. We have been growing the plants for a long period now and the soil is loaded with seed. Weed plants have been under control for several years, so there should be nothing to stop those plants which can self-seed from doing so. So here’s a check list of what you need to do to follow suit:

  1. Allow your plants to flower and drop their seeds. This can produce, in some people’s eyes, an untidy garden but there are so many advantages including encouraging wildlife and saving your time growing the plants from seed and planting out every year.
  2. Keep your garden weed free.
  3. Dig your garden sparingly, preferably in the Autumn or Winter.
  4. Learn to recognise dye plant seedlings.
  5. Use mulch sparingly i.e. only on areas where you intend to plant out other plants. (Mulch supresses seed germination and encourages slugs and snails).
  6. Try and control slugs and snails. (I recommend organically approved slug bait [Iron phosphate] as a last resort).
  7. Water the bare soil if it becomes very dry.

Three varieties of Japanese Indigo Persicara tinctoria

Finally I have managed to sow all three varieties of Japanese indigo at the same time to complete our comparative studies (see blog post). Sure enough, it is possible to tell the difference between the long leaved variety and the broad leaf variety. Even the photos show the slight difference in foliage colour (the broad leaf being a more yellow green) and the long leaf plants are a centimetre or so taller. These plants are about 3 weeks old and grown under identical conditions. The intermediate variety more closely resembles the broad leaf.

Persicara tinctoria

3 varieties of Japanese Indigo at three weeks from sowing.

More Pests

We have found something that eats madder.

Rubia tinctorum pests

This is probably the caterpillar of the Orange Underwing moth, a known pest in the UK which eats a whole variety of plants. So we’re not surprised it’s had a go at our Common Madder. Fortunately there are not enough of them to do any real damage, but they do spoil the appearance of the plants. We can live with that, so no need to take any action.

Suppliers

Rühlemann’s herb nursery has an excellent collection of dye plants and seed for sale and don’t mind sending stuff to other European countries. Their service is excellent.

Poyntzfield Herb Nursery   Scottish herb nursery sells various dye plants and will sell Dyer’s Woodruff root cuttings. Recommended.

References

* Dominique Cardon, Natural Dyes : Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science   . The Definitive reference book of dye plants and dyeing. If you want to know what dye plants are native to the country you live in you will find the information here. A master work, expensive but worth every penny.

Our back garden

The Natures Rainbow Garden

Would you like to take part in a Nature’s Rainbow “Pilot” Workshop on Planning a Dye plant garden?

Planning and Planting a Dye Plant Garden

UPDATE 9 May 2019
Thank you everyone! We have been overwhelmed by the interest shown in this first pilot workshop.  If you would like to be added to a waiting list in case anyone drops out, or if you would like us to alert you about future courses, please get in touch.

We will post about how the workshop goes after 1st June.

_________________________________________________________________________

Saturday 1st June 2019, 1 – 5pm

Creating a planting plan for beginner dye gardeners, with tips from Susan and Ashley of Nature’s Rainbow. What plants to grow, when to plant, when to harvest, how to maintain the garden.

We have been growing and using dye plants in the historic town of Hitchin for over 14 years.
Help us to design future workshops to share our expertise.

5 places available. Contact us via this blog for further details and how to book.
£20 nominal fee required in advance to confirm your place.

This is a very reduced rate to recognise the fact that the views and feedback from the people attending will be helping to design a future workshop for Nature’s Rainbow.

Participants will have a tour of an established dye garden (as featured in The Journal of Weavers Spinners and Dyers https://www.journalwsd.org.uk/article/the-dye-plant-garden and hear how we manage the mix of annual, biennial and perennial plants within the constraints of our site. We’ll structure the session loosely, so we can maximise the flow of info between us all.

Seeds and perennial root cuttings of madder and small dyer’s broom plants to take away.

In exchange, you need to be willing to provide feedback and ideas on how to design future workshops and bring a simple sketch of your growing space, marking up sunny and shady areas and soil type.

Our house and dye garden is a very short walk from Hitchin Station, with frequent services on the Great Northern train line between Kings Cross, Cambridge and Peterborough.  Please contact us

Susan and Ash

Talk to Lea Valley Guild of Spinners Weavers and Dyers

12 April 2019
I had the pleasure of talking to this friendly guild last night about how to mordant safely for plant dyeing. The group meets in the beautiful village of Roydon in Essex, just across the border from my home county of Herts.  https://leavalleyguildswd.weebly.com/

Here are recommended links referred to in my talk.

Catharine Ellis blog – https://blog.ellistextiles.com/

Recommended books
The Art and Science of Natural Dyes; Principles, Experiments, and Results
By Joy Boutrup, Catharine Ellis (2019)
ISBN10-13: 076435633X : 9780764356339
176pp £57.99
UK distributors – Gazelle Book Services  01524 528500
You can order by phone – New stock arrives UK on 22 April.
https://www.gazellebookservices.co.uk/

The Modern Natural Dyer
By Kristine Vejar (2015)
ISBN: 9781617691751£18.99 from Waterstones
https://www.averbforkeepingwarm.com/products/the-modern-natural-dyer

Sustainable plant sources of aluminium and tannin mordants
Bebali Foundation  http://plantmordant.org/symplocos/

And finally … for safety gloves perfect for indigo dyeing

Gloves –  glovesnstuff.com

 

 

 

Whats New in Natural Dyeing

Exciting new publications for plant dyers

Beyond Mordants from Slow Fiber Studios

Susan and I have long been fans of Michel Garcia’s DVDs on natural plant dyes and pigments. So we were excited and delighted when we got an email before Christmas from Slow Fiber Studios asking to use some of our dye plant photographs for a new DVD:

Beyond Mordants: Indigo Intensive and direct application of Dyes. Film IV: Natural Dye Workshop Series with Michel Garcia

Publication date: February 2019.Michael Garcia and Slow Fibre Studios new DVD Beyond Mordants

Using metallic salts of Aluminium, Iron or Copper for mordanting is controversial in craft plant dyeing as these are all toxic to some extent, both to humans and other forms of life. If used and disposed of with care, the risks can be reduced [See Carrie Sundra’s blog] but many people choose to avoid using metal-based mordants completely.

As a result there has been growing demand to find safer alternative “bio mordants”. Promising plant substances include Myrobalan, various tannins, Curcumin (from turmeric) and Lawson (from henna). In this latest DVD Michel Garcia addresses this gap in current knowledge and shows how to dye and print without using metal mordants.

Slow Fiber’s DVDs are packed with information and can be watched over and over again. They are aesthetic, gentle, informative and a perfect antidote to a stressful world. A friend, Aviva Leigh from Norfolk was the first to introduce us to their work. She says the mark of a true plant dyeing friend is someone with whom you can, with eager anticipation, settle down for an evening of re-watching Michel and Yoshiko’s DVDs, just as others would watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster! The films are soul-food for the craft plant dyer.

It’ll be very exciting to see plants from our dye garden (our babies!!) on screen!

Michel Garcia. Still from DVD “Beyond Mordants” © Slow Fiber Studios

 

New Book: The Art and Science of Natural Dyes

If, like us, you are keen to understand the science of plant dyeing and mordanting in particular, a new book by Catherine Ellis and Joy Boutrup’s comes highly recommended.

The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: Principles, Experiments and Results by Joy Boutrup and Catharine Ellis.The Art and Science of Natural Dyes by Joy Boutrup and Catherine Ellis

This book has now been released for sale (January 2019).

Catharine Ellis is a weaver, dyer and author of international repute based in North Carolina. She specialises in systematic experiments in her craft and teaches through Slow Fiber Studios. Many readers will be familiar with Catharine’s excellent website (see here). Joy Boutrup, from Denmark, lectures in textile technology for fashion design and for museum conservation. Both women have longstanding and impressive careers in their respective fields.

It’s our feeling that both the DVD and this book will be landmark publications, marking a step-change in the systematic knowledge available to the craft plant dyer. So don’t be put off by the prices (Beyond Mordants $52, The Art and Science of Natural Dyes $60).

In our own small way, we hope that the observations that inform our blog are a useful information source, and it’s free! But essentially we provide small snippets of data. Collecting all of that information together into a structured form, providing an expert overview and binding it into a professionally referenced book or instructional DVD takes time and money.

It is my hope that one day I will have amassed enough information about growing dye plants to make it possible to write a book on the subject myself but it will take many more years of growing, observation and experimentation to get to that point.

I can only imagine how much work has gone into the two publications above. Even though I haven’t seen them at the time of writing, I feel confident to recommend them. They are the work of leading experts in the field and I for one can’t wait to get my hands on them!

By Ashley Walker and Susan Dye
© Nature’s Rainbow

Coreopsis tinctoria in flower

Dyers Coreopsis grown as a biennial

Coreopsis tinctoria

By Ashley Walker
Copyright 22nd Jan 2019

In our 2016 post on Growing Dyers Coreopsis (see here) I mentioned that this annual dye plant was considered to be hardy and could be grown as a biennial (seed sown in first year for flowering in second year). I can now confirm this to be true.

Last year we noticed some self-seeded coreopsis growing in pots in the early spring. They had reached quite a size so must have started growing in the late Autumn of the previous year and somehow survived the winter. They went on to produce very attractive early flowers. This year we have some further self-seeded coreopsis plants growing in some of the pots in our back garden which I’ve been keeping an eye on to see how they are weathering the winter. Two nights ago we had a hard frost (about -3°C) and the plants looked quite frozen the following day and stayed that way until another night had passed when they thawed out again. The plants have appeared to recover well (see photos).

Coreopsis tinctoria a hardy biennial

Frosted Dyers Coreopsis plant 20th Jan 2019

Coreopsis tictoria seedling

Two days later on 22nd Jan 2019 the plant has thawed out without any significant damage. What damage you can see has been caused by slugs and snails.

I should not be surprised of course as these plants grow in the North American plains where frost at night in the spring and harsh winters will be a feature of the climate. I suppose that what did surprise me was that left to their own devices the seeds will germinate in Autumn and survive much harsher winters than we get here in the UK. They are after all quite delicate looking plants. This particular plant has a long stem and possibly would not survive a heavy fall of snow but some of the coreopsis we grow have short stems and go through a rosette stage which is an adaptation to over wintering.

Autumn germination does explain why we do not get much self-seeding in our dye garden. Many of the seeds probably do germinate then (when I’m not really paying attention) and are quickly chewed up by slugs and snails which are abundant at this time of year. Only a few seeds are left to germinate in the spring and they too have to run the risk of being eaten.

When we first started growing coreopsis we had no self-seeded plants for many years but in the last few years there has always been a few so I assume the “seed bank” in the soil has reached a level where there are enough spring germinating seeds to ensure some survive. The plants I noticed overwintering are all growing in pots where they do get some protection from the rampaging molluscs – even so you can see by the photos that they have been nibbled.

Coreopsis tinctoria pot grown

Self Seeded and overwintered Dyers Coreopsis in flower in Early July 2018.

So my advice for other growers who desire the stunning displays of coreopsis earlier in the year is to sow seed in the Autumn in an area of garden that you can easily protect from slugs and snails. My plants have survived -3°C but I do not know the lowest temperature they could survive in so if you are in an area that gets prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures I would also make sure your plants are at least partially protected by placing them near to a warm house or growing in a greenhouse or cold frame.Coreopsis tinctoria in flower

Why do we do craft?

 

 

A philosophical post by Susan

Ashley mentioned in an earlier post that we were recently interviewed for British Fibre Art Magazine (see issue 10 July/August 2018). Rainy, the editor, posed some excellent questions about why we do what we do, which prompted some serious thought and discussion here at home.

Several themes emerged.

Ashley and I both had mothers who made things. My mother was passionate about colour and had a very good eye. Her greatest joy was working at the sewing machine, making clothes and soft furnishings. She was definitely a thwarted designer. Ash’s Mam came from a family of very skilled knitters. I wonder if this gave her the confidence, once the children were grown, to try a huge range of crafts? She mastered many styles of lace-making, was an accomplished cross stitcher and quilter (see Baltimore quilt above) and made all manner of 3D objects. Both women were motivated by mastering technique and producing a beautifully finished product.

Ash and I both studied science at A level and university. I think that’s why we like careful experimentation and are constantly trying to understand more about how plant dyeing works. Ashley studied biology specialising in botany, so it makes sense that he’s so driven to grow and explore different plants. I’m more interested in the history of science and the recipes which have been lost.

I also realise that not having children (I had cancer in my mid twenties) has affected our life choices a great deal. We were freer to downshift when the mortgage was paid off and there were fewer external pressures on us to conform.

This doesn’t mean we haven’t thought a lot about what we might ‘leave behind’ after we’re gone.  And what constitutes ‘right living’. While we were in well-paid work we supported various charities. After we shifted to part-time lower paid work, we became were involved in local community projects and environmental campaigning. Ashley retrained in horticultural therapy and got enormous fulfilment from enabling people be happier and more active through gardening and the outdoors.

Gradually, over the last two decades, we have moved further away from the mainstream as we have managed on a steadily lower income. This has an interesting effect. It’s like being on a permanent retreat at a 10% level. You see things slightly from one side, more critically. The mainstream media is less relevant. You spend more of your time producing rather than consuming. For example, in the 2000s we made huge amounts of very passable wine, excellent jam and lots of vegetables. Our focus gradually shifted onto beekeeping and plant dyeing, which at least offered the opportunity of some income rather than risking liver failure and tooth decay!

In the process, we also had the time and emotional capacity for hands-on care for friends and relatives. This isn’t something we anticipated. It emerged out of making deeper connections in our neighbourhood when I got involved with transport campaigning locally. When you find careers away from where you grew up and you don’t have children and you are quite extreme introverts, you don’t make friends on your doorstep easily. Suddenly we entered a fascinating network of extraordinary people. Maybe it’s special to Hitchin, or special to the particular neighbourhood where we live, but I suspect every street has these networks waiting to welcome you in.

One such very special friendship was with Diane who tragically developed motor neurone disease. By 2005 our work/life situation was flexible enough that I was able to join the team of friends and family who supported Diane so she could have her wish to remain at home throughout her illness. This gave us the experience and confidence to home-hospice, first Ashley’s Mam and then my own mother as they in turn developed cancer and died. We didn’t do this unsupported. There were  palliative care services in the community in both cases. Siblings also helped. But we were able to be fully present and ‘live in’ when our mothers needed us. Both times it was heart-rending and emotionally exhausting but it also felt completely the right thing to do and we have no regrets.

So how does this relate to modern craft?

I read a book by Professor Susan Luckman last week at the British Library: Craft and the Creative Economy[1]. And it all fell into place.

She explores from all angles why the hand craft movement is currently thriving in developed economies. What desires and needs are being fulfilled for the maker and consumer?  Is small scale hand-made artisan production an act of resistance to unsustainable capitalism, a distraction or a self-soothing coping strategy? She explores whether the popular archetype of the entrepreneurial craftsperson with a balanced home/work life is a fantasy, a romantic ideal or a valuable alternative microeconomic niche. Perhaps the popularity of the ‘home made’ reveals the depth of hunger for meaning and making ethical retail choices? People want in some way to reject mass consumption of disposable items where the environmental and social impacts are externalised, hidden from view.

Luckman resists any simple answers. She accepts that the craft movement is tiny in the grand scheme of things and mostly serves a privileged elite. She is also deeply sceptical of the gender stereotype of the glamorous ideal female – attractive wife, mother, home-maker and entrepreneur running it all from home and letting you, the customer, see every detail of the home environment where this blissful production takes place. She warns against the fetishisation of hand tools and a false dichotomy of design and making.  And she accepts that crafting is a soft option compared to politics for changing the world for the better.

But, she does come down on the side of hand-made crafted items having a special quality for the maker and the consumer, which might signal a future with more sustainable and kinder economic models. She likes Jane Bennett’s[2] concept of ‘vibrant matter’ and ‘enchantment’ to explain the emotional responses many people have to the hand made.  This suggests that hand made items that are aesthetically pleasing, made of natural materials, carrying visible signs of the making process (or accompanied by a story online) do broaden attitudes to consumption, valuing and repair. They do pose questions that can be more broadly asked about sourcing, embedded energy, lifecycle and sense of purpose.

Luckman also suggest as crafters we should be bolder. The emotional desire for the hand made should not be underestimated. It is not naïve. As crafters we should be proud to “dig where we stand” and not be afraid to shout about our values and ideals. Without giving in to a pressure to conform to airbrushed social media archetypes, we can powerfully affect people who connect with what we make. We can ‘tweak and bend capitalism’ and create ‘useful and healthy identities as workers’.

I realise that I am already living in what Luckman calls the ‘downshifted cultural economy’. Ashley and I are practicing craft for the enchantment of making vibrant objects, enhancing our wellbeing and usefully supplementing what Luckman describes as a ‘larger strategy of downshifted and slower living’.

Having read her book, I feel empowered to be bolder, tell more about my choices, my politics, my wider values and my struggles to navigate this territory.  She recommends not feeling ashamed to keep telling your story as you go through life’s ups and downs, share how you are actively designing your life. It might have a bigger effect than you imagine.

[1] Luckman, Susan (2015) Craft and the Creative Economy[1] Palgrave Macmillan

[2] Bennett, Jane (2001) The enchantment of modern life: attachments, crossings and ethics. Princeton University Press; Bennett, Jane (2010) Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things, Duke University Press.

Follow up to Talk to Region 7 Quilters Guild 6 Oct 2018

Madder, Weld and Woad dyed quilt

‘The River Ran Red’ A plant dyed quilt by Susan Dye. Mixed fabrics 2015

On Saturday 6th October I gave a talk about my quilt, ‘The River Ran Red’ at Eaton Bray  for Region 7 of the UK Quilters Guild.

This region covers Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire. And what a friendly and well organised group they are!

These regional days pack a lot in: traders’ stalls, a big bring and buy table and a raffle for guild funds, superb cake, show and tell of members’ quilts and, of course, talks.

The phenomenon that is Philippa Naylor

In the morning we were in for a treat. The speaker was international prize winning quilter Philippa Naylor. I have long admired Philippa’s exquisite, flowing whole cloth quilting, but I never realised what an absolute hoot she is. Her main message to the audience was that we should enjoy life to the full and that success does not depend on unique special talents or gifts. She told us that her success is down to dedication and lots of hard work. Anyone can achieve an outstanding standard of work, if you have the discipline and commitment. She says life is short, so do what you love and work at it until you become really good. She did also emphasise that having been born in Yorkshire helps, it gives you grit!

It was clear that Philippa knows how to remain connected to joy and fun which fuels her creativity and staying power. She entertained us in words and pictures with details of what she really loves in life. Family, her chickens and ducks, her flower and vegetable garden, her home, her county, beauty and nature. Hard not to smile just remembering how she conveyed her passion for life. And all of this shines through in her stunning quilts, several of which were on show.

River Ran Red Quilt

More modestly, the group heard a talk in the afternoon from me about my City and Guilds quilt inspired by the 19th Century Norwich Shawls. With added info on our dye garden and how to use grand teint plant dyes to achieve bright and fast colours on fabrics.

Here are some links I promised for anyone interested in learning more.

Costume and Textile Association (C&TA) – http://www.ctacostume.org.uk

Norfolk Museums Service https://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk

The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell has a Jacquard loom and displays of Norwich textiles.

The Castle Museum holds one of the country’s leading costume and textile collections.

Textile tours often feature as part of Norfolk and Norwich Festival https://nnfestival.org.uk/ and are also promoted by the C&TA. A good general trail is https://www.ifootpath.com/display-ifootpath-walk?walkID=839. The official tourist information centre tours take different themes every year and the programme can be found here https://www.visitnorwich.co.uk/shopping/shops/listing/tourist-information-centre/

Aviva Leigh – now based in the Norfolk market town of Aylsham – is a tinctorialist and designer who has studied and promoted the history of Norwich textiles and recently presented her work for the Geoffrey Squire Bursary Award of the CT&A recreating dyed woven textiles from 18C Norwich pattern books.

https://www.avivaleigh.com/colour-stories/2018/10/11/strips-stripes-amp-stories-exploring-18th-century-norwich-textiles

Books

Clabburn, Pamela (1995) The Norwich Shawl. Norfolk Museums Service London HMSO.

Hoyte, Helen (2010) The Story of the Norwich Shawl. Norwich: N. Williams.

Morris, Thelma (2008) Made in Norwich; 700 Years of Textile Heritage, Norwich: N.Williams.

Chenciner, R. (2000) Madder Red, A history of luxury and trade. Curzon, Caucasus World

Dean, J. Wild Colour – How to Grow, Prepare and Use Natural Plant Dyes. Mitchell Beazley, 2010

Liles, J. N. The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use University of Tennessee Press, 1990

Cardon, D. Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science. Archetype Publications Ltd 2003

Suppliers

Mordants and plant dyes :

Willo Fibres http://www.willofibres.co.uk
Tim and Denise have taken over the dye supply business of P&M Woolcraft.

Helen Melvin at Fiery Felts http://www.fieryfelts.co.uk/shop/

For plants – a lovely family run nursery in Wales – https://www.7wells.co.uk

Natures Rainbow new plants 2018

The Natures Rainbow Garden 2018 – Part Two, New Plants

By Ashley Walker
Copyright August 2018

Introduction

Since the industrialisation of synthetic dyes most of the knowledge of plant dyes was lost in Europe until it was partially revived by craftspeople like Ethel Mairet and Later Jill Goodwin, Hetty Wickens, Jim Liles, Jenny Dean and many others. Jill Goodwin lists 140 dye plants alone in her book “A Dyer’s Manual”. Reading the books of these trailblazers has given me an almost obsessive interest in some of these plants – how to grow them, how they are related, what dyes do they have in common etc.  In today’s plant dye world we seem to have concentrated on just a handful of key plants (such as Madder, Japanese indigo, and Weld) which give the best and most light fast colours. People still like to try dyeplant materials that are easily foraged and some of these produce good colours, but many are short lived. Personnally I think that foraging in an already over exploited environment is a practice that should be avoided if possible and I want to grow the plants myself, find out more about them, what they look like, how they grow, what sort of conditions they like, how closely related they are, what pests eat them etc. Natural dyeing is a step on the way to connecting with our precious environment and finding out about and growing the plants we use is another step.

Some while back I realised that Common Madder has a host of relatives, some of which are actually native to the British Isles. As you would expect with close relatives, these plants are similar in appearance and habit. They are all clambering or creeping plants with weak, square stems and thin spikey leaves which usually grow in whorls from the stems.

There follows a list of some of the experiences I’ve had with new plants this year starting with relatives of Common Madder. Where possible I obtained seeds and started them indoors in seed trays in March/April, planting out in May.

Dyers Woodruff – Asperula tinctoria

Asperula tinctoria

Dyer’s Woodruff

Asperula tinctoria

Dyer’s Woodruff in flower

I was unable to obtain any seeds for this madder relative so I was very pleased to discover a Scottish plant nursery (Poyntzfield Herb Nursery)  selling the plants. In March, they sent a big bundle of bare rooted plants wrapped in sphagnum moss.  But as we were then still experiencing freezing and wet conditions I potted up the thick red roots in some ordinary potting compost. Most of these have grown well but a few died after initial good growth. There remain a few which are struggling with yellow brownish foliage even though I planted them out in a variety of soil types. I’m not at all sure what the problem is. Dyer’s Woodruff is an attractive feathery plant similar to its relatives with two to four small thin leaves at intervals along its stem. Small white flowers appeared in June. Now in early August it looks as if a tiny few are developing seeds, which I hope I’ll be able to save. The roots are not as large as madder but they are quite respectable and I’m thinking that of all the new madder relatives we obtained this year this is the most promising. The books say it will grow in acid and alkaline soils and can also grow in partial shade. I’m testing this out.

Ladies Bedstraw – Galium verum

Galium verum

Ladies Bedstraw in flower

Galium verum

A clump of young Ladies bedstraw plants will grow into a cushion and then a carpet.

This plant is native to Hertfordshire and happily grows in chalk soil meadows. It will also grow in many other conditions, including poor sandy soils. The leaves are smaller than Dyer’s Woodruff but have whorls of six leaves at intervals along its stem, much like madder. This plant has grown from seed very robustly. I planted seedlings out in clumps of 15 to 20 creating very attractive cushions of feathery green foliage. These have  grown into ground covering carpets with flower stems reaching 6-12 inches high, with tight clusters of pretty yellow flowers in July/August. It makes an excellent trailing plant and although the flowers don’t last long it would make an attractive contrast to some more showy flowers. In the wild this plant is very competitive and will happily grow in grassy meadows. Tended and watered it responds very well, producing long lasting carpets of foliage. Wild plant roots are thinner than Dyer’s Woodruff so I’ll be interested to see if cultivation makes a difference.

Field Madder – Sherardia arvensis

Sheradia arvensis

An agricultural weed, Field Madder, is a small creeping annual plant with thin roots.

This is a classic annual weed of agricultural areas producing small creeping plants with tiny pale pink flowers, leaf whorls of from 4 to 6 leaves looking very much like miniature madder leaves and large seeds which are produced very quickly. It’s difficult to see how this could have been used as a dye plant considering its small size, short life cycle and thin roots. The books say it was used, so I thought I’d give it a try. Seeds are not too difficult to obtain but do not readily germinate – they have a typical weed habit of staying dormant in the soil maybe for years waiting until the conditions are just right. They do produce a mass of roots so it could be worthwhile. I think that the key to obtaining an easy harvest would be to grow it in pots in good quality compost that could be washed away when the roots have grown. I do not know how much of a problem weed these plants are but they do seem to like growing with other plants which they use for support and do not do so well on their own. They are supposed to be good self seeders so we will see.

Devils Bit Scabious – Succisa pratensis

Succisa pratensis

Rosettes of Devil’s Bit Scabious planted around an Alder Buckthorn sapling in a specially created acid soil bed. There are also some first year weld plants bottom right.

Succisa pratensis

Devil’s bit scabious flower

This is a plant I’ve wanted to grow for a long time for its ability to attract bees and other pollinators. In addition, its pin-cushion-like flowers are a pretty lavender blue and open out in July to October at the same time as many of our yellow flowering dye plants. Growing some plants with a contrasting flower colour has been a bit of an obsession for us. Yellow is nice but needs contrasting colours to really bring it out so I was delighted to discover that the Devil’s Bit Scabious is also a reasonable dye plant, at least according to Jean Fraser in her book Traditional Scottish Dyes where she gives a recipe for greenish yellow with alum mordanted material. Intriguingly she also notes that according to Ethel Mairet the leaves of the Devil’s Bit plant also contain indigo, but I’ve read that before about Weld and that turned out to be nonsense.  (I can feel an experiment coming on!).
The plant grows much like woad, producing a thick rosette of large leaves in the first year or two before flowering. It is a perennial but can, according to other accounts, suffer from getting crowded out by more vigorous plants. It is notoriously difficult to germinate from seed – out of about 100 seeds I only managed to get about 4 germinations and, on previous attempts, none at all. Fortunately the plant can be obtained from specialist nurseries and we got some very healthy specimens from Rosybee which have grown very well and two of these have just started to come into flower.

Shrubs and trees

Alder Buckthorn – Frangula alnus

Frangula Alnus

Alder Buckthorn

Alder and Purging Buckthorn are often sold as hedging plants. They can be found growing in the UK countryside provided you know what they look like. And there is the rub! They look pretty much like a whole load of other small trees so part of the reason we decided to buy some saplings was to familiarise ourselves and be able to identify them in the wild. The nursery we bought the plants from (Ashridge Nursaries) were adamant that Alder Buckthorn could not be grown in our chalk soil so I have put  plants in different soils and environments to see how they get on. They arrived bare-rooted in mid March, after the late freeze relented. I heeled them in compost in a sheltered spot on the patio at home until planting them out in April. So far the best growth has been achieved on the allotment, planted in a special “acid” bed made by piling up and digging in ericaceous compost to the light chalk soil. Second best growth is in a large garden planter filled with a mixture of ericaceous and ordinary compost. The last 2 were planted into a cleared grove of Blackthorn growing on chalk soil without any compost, or any watering for that matter. Needless to say these two have not grown much at all, but they are still alive despite the drought and alkaline soil, so we will see. The bark and leaves of this and Purging Buckthorn are usually cited as sources of yellows to dark brown dye stuffs with “sap” green coming from the unripe or ripe berries (different sources give different information). Of the two species, Alder Buckthorn seems to be the main dye plant but I have been unable to find any direct comparison. Another experiment that needs doing!

Rhamnus cathartica and Frangula alnus

Purging and Alder Buckthorn roots are quite different. Black roots of Purging on left and red roots of Alder on right.

Purging Buckthorn – Rhamnus cathartica

Rhamnus cathartica

Purging Buckthorn

Very similar in appearance to Alder Buckthorn but supposedly  equally happy on acid or alkaline soil. I planted most of the saplings on chalk soil at my apiary and left them to fend for themselves. But I saved one sapling to try out in an acid bed, on the allotment (near the Alder Buckthorn) but it has not grown as vigorously and the leaves have gone yellow in places.

Both Purging and Alder Buckthorn are serious invasive pests in the United States and Canada and are banned in two US states.

Black or Quercitron Oak – Quercus velutina

Quercus velutina

Black Oak sapling

This is a large tree from central and eastern USA which became a very important commercial source of yellow dye in Europe in the 19th Century, even after synthetic dyes started to dominate. We have read a fair bit about this tree’s splendid history and that of the man who promoted it (Edward Bancroft – scientist and spy) and thought we would try and grow it mainly out of historical curiosity. Despite a warning found in one dye book that you could not grow it in the UK, we found a supplier in Cornwall (Burncoose Nurseries). So we are now the proud owners of a small sapling growing in a large planter in our back garden. It will be great to see if we can get some dye stuff from the inner bark but, let’s face it we might be long dead by the time the tree is big enough to harvest a branch or two!

Smooth Sumac – Rhus glabra

Rhus glabra

Smooth Sumac in flower

Of all the different species of Sumac, we decided on this North American one for several reasons. It’s perhaps one of the most decorative,  it is wildlife friendly and also fully hardy. It has a high tannin content and the berries it produces are said to be edible. It can produce invasive underground suckers so we are growing it in a large planter. There are plenty of other sumacs growing in peoples gardens and in waste areas around Hitchin but it’s nice to have one right there in the back garden – no foraging needed.

 

 

 

 

 

Hopefully in a year’s time we’ll have some dyed samples to show how successful these new plants have proven to be.

References

Traditional Scottish Dyes  by  Jean Fraser

A book on vegetable dyes by Ethel M Mairet

Edward Bancroft Scientist, Author, Spy by Thomas J. Schaeper

A Dyer’s Manual by Jill Goodwin

Natural Dyes for Spinners and Weavers by Hetty Wickens, A batsford craft Paperback.

The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing, Traditional recipes for Modern use by J. N. Liles

Suppliers

Rosybee – Plants for bees http://www.rosybee.com

Poyntzfield Herb Nursery  http://www.poyntzfieldherbs.co.uk

Ashridge Nurseries https://www.ashridgetrees.co.uk

Burncoose Nurseries https://www.burncoose.co.uk

Rubiaceae. Rubia tinctorum, Sheradia arvensis, Galium verum and Asperula tinctoria

Ladies Bedstraw intergrowing with Field Madder and Dyer’s Woodruff. Top left is some Common Madder.

Persicaria tinctoria indigo extraction experiment

Hot vs Cold indigo extraction from fresh Japanese Indigo leaves

By Ashley Walker
Copyright 6th August 2018

Currently the main method of indigo extraction in use on internet Facebook pages is the 2 -3 day long soak in water. I believe this was the main method used commercially in the days before synthetic indigo wiped out the western market for natural indigo. Originally used to extract indigo from Indigofera tinctoria it is still used for small scale production in South Asia. The method is now used for Japanese indigo presumably because the traditional Japanese Method of composting the leaves is too large scale and time consuming for craft dyers. So it has been with some bafflement that I’ve seen the rise of this soaking method as I have always followed the Jenny Dean method which is even quicker.

We were introduced to plant dyeing through the pages of Jenny Dean’s “Wild Colour” and have used her recipe from this book for many years. It involves heating the leaves and can be done in two hours. Since we started to use this recipe we have tweaked it somewhat, discovering that there is no need to heat the leaves over 75 to 80°C to get maximum extraction. Another wrinkle is the need to allow the heated leaves to cool fairly rapidly. Large containers holding 20+ litres tend to cool too slowly and the indigo can be damaged. We did try one experiment when we cooled the extraction bath artificially but that was too quick and the results were very poor. An ideal extraction would be to heat about 1kg of leaves in 5 to 10 litres of water to 75°C and allow it to cool naturally over an hour. In our climate it will fall to around 40°C or less during that time.

So, now to the experiment which was a bit slap dash, but I am sure that it was systematic enough to have fairly good validity for a home dyer.

I picked just over 2kg of fresh Japanese Indigo of the Long Leaf variety which was showing no signs of any flower buds. This was divided into 2 lots of 1026g.

Persicaria tinctoria

Long Leaf Japanese Indigo showing leaf curl – a result of prolonged hot sunny weather.

Hot Soak Method (based on Jenny Dean)

Once batch of leaves was added to a large pan with about 8 litres of cold tap water (20°C) and then gradually heated with constant stirring to 75°C. This took exactly one hour and at the end the leaves had lost all of their fresh green tint and had turned almost black. The water was a very dark grey (a lot darker than usual in fact and I attribute this to a higher than normal amount of indigo in the leaf – a result of the weeks and weeks of hot sunny weather we have had this summer).

The leaves were then left to soak for one more hour, after which there was an indigo bloom at the surface and the water had darkened further. The leaves were removed (by straining through old tights) and 4 tablespoons of household ammonia were added with an immediate colour change to dark yellow/green. The liquid was then oxygenated by pouring from bucket to bucket about 20 times during which the liquid darkened to a green black. A small quantity of the liquid (viewed from above in a white plastic cup) looked olive green.

Indigo extraction from Japanese Indigo Hot and cold methods

Comparison of Hot and cold indigo extraction after 1 hour of soaking but before straining.

Cold Soak Method

The second batch of leaves was placed in a plastic bucket filled with about 8 litres of hot tap water (57°C). I used hot water because I did not wish to wait more than 24 hours. At this temperature the leaves become slightly cooked and release cell contents into the water quicker. The bucket was then set aside for 24 hours. After 1 hour the temperature had fallen to 44°C, the leaves were still quite green and the liquid was much paler and bluer than the hot extraction at the same stage. See image above.

After 24 hours the leaves were still greenish, although they had darkened somewhat. There was a lot of indigo scum on the top leaves. The liquid was grey with a blue tint. The plastic bucket was stained blue. Generally the results so far looked good, with much more blue visible than in the Jenny Dean method.

Indigo extraction from Persicaria tinctoria

Cold indigo extraction after 24 hours. Lots of indigo bloom on leaves.

Indigo extraction from Persicaria tinctoria

After leaves are removed, alkali (ammonia) added and liquid aerated.

Extraction of indigo from Persicaria tinctoria

Comparison of colour of water after extraction.

Leaves of Persicaria tinctoria after indigo extraction.

Colour of leaves after cold soak for 24 hours.

 

Indigo stained bucket

Empty plastic bucket used for 24 hour cold soak now stained with indigo.

The leaves were removed and about 4 tablespoons of household ammonia were added and the colour immediately changed to yellow green. The liquid was then oxygenated, by pouring back and forth between buckets about 20 times. During this process the liquid darkened until it was nearly black. A small quantity looked blue/green.

Dye test

Both extracts were then heated at the same time in separate pans to 50°C, the ideal temperature for dyeing wool, and spectralite reducing agent (thiourea dioxide, thiox) was added (one and a half teaspoons) to each pan. They were then left for about 2 hours to give ample time for the indigo to be reduced. The pots were then reheated to 50°C and an identical skein of wool (Corriedale) was added to each. Both pots were then gently stirred to promote even dyeing and the skeins were removed after 20 minutes.

Results

Initially the colour of the skein from the Jenny Dean (hot) method looked darker but on drying no difference could be detected.

Dye test. hot and Cold extracted indigo from Persicaria tinctoria

Test dye showing relative strengths of dye bath from Hot and Cold extracted indigo.

Conclusions

The amount of indigo extracted appears to be the same for both methods. However, heating, cooking and stirring the leaves increased the amount of fine particulate plant material in the liquid which increased the amount of sludge in the bottom of the dye bath.

I should clarify I don’t use lime (as a combined alkali and flocculating agent) to obtain a dried indigo pigment from my dyeplants. Any indigo I don’t use straightaway for dyeing, I store as liquid sludges. But I can see that for people who do use lime, the cold soak is advantageous because the resulting indigo pigment would contain fewer impurities than the hot soak because the liquid extract after straining is purer. For myself I’m quite happy to continue using my modified Jenny Dean process as it is fast and reliable.

Postscript

Out of interest I also decided to compare the Long Leaf Japanese Indigo to Woad. I processed a similar quantity of Woad leaf according to the 24 hour soak method in the experiment. Another wool skein was dyed in nearly identical conditions and the results prove to me that Woad can actually produce more indigo than Long Leaf Japanese Indigo.

Wool dyed with indigo extracted from Persicaria tinctoria and Isatis tinctoria

Comparison of strength of indigo extracted from Long Leaf  Japanese Indigo and Woad.

A note on alkalis

There has been a lot of controversy about which alkalis produce the best results. I have tried most of them and found that what is important is the pH not the exact chemical used to get there. Washing soda is the weakest and produces very poor results. Household ammonia is excellent and relatively safe, provided you don’t get it on your skin or breathe it in. Calcium hydroxide (lime) is good and has the added benefit of soaking up the indigo precipitate and settling it to the bottom fast (flocculation). Sodium hydroxide is also good but is very corrosive – a danger to skin and textile.
Whenever using strong alkalis you must take safety precautions: wear gloves; avoid splashes; don’t ever add water to dry alkaline powders or granules, add the powder to water; label colourless solutions and store safely; never leave sodium hydroxide solutions unattended for curious animals or children to explore (it is colourless and odourless and very corrosive indeed).

References

Wild Colour by Jenny Dean

Susan Dye and Ashley Walker

The Natures Rainbow garden 2018 – Part one

by Ashley Walker
Copyright August 2018
Banner photograph copyright Sharon Cooper

On the 9th August, after two months with barely a drop of rain, the heatwave and drought in the South East of England may finally have come to an end. Despite regular watering the unnatural weather has taking its toll on our dye plants. For the first time our woad plants are being eaten by Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars (Large White Pieris brassicae and Small White Pieris rapae) and more recently by flea beetles (genus Phyllotreta). I guess the critters were getting desperate to find plants with a bit of juice in their leaves. The weather is having an impact on me as well, I have to water the indigo nearly every day and keeping the rest of the garden needs water too so I’m spending hours each week that I’d rather be spending on writing or dyeing.

This is the first part of a two part post on observations of the dye plants in our garden. This one deals with the plants we have been growing for more than a year. The second part will cover new plants.

European Woad – Isatis tinctoria

Isatis tinctoria being eaten by Large White butterfly caterpillars

These Large White caterpillars managed to eat the whole woad leaf, leaving only the midrib behind.

We have grown Woad for about 12 years now and for the first time our plants have been attacked by caterpillars and flea beetles. This makes a change from the usual small black slugs which put a few holes in the leaves but seldom do any serious damage.

Isatis Tinctoria leaf with eggs and lava of Large Cabbage White butterfly

A cluster of Large White butterfly eggs on the underside of a woad leaf

Isatis Tinctoria being attacked by Flea Beatles

Shiny black small Flea Beatles can slowly chew their way through a woad leaf leaving it like a sieve.

Isatis tinctoria

Woad flower spike August 2018 – from seed to flower in one season as a result of pampering.

I expect that the extraordinary hot weather is to blame with the butterflies and beetles probably acting in desperation. Although the flea beetles appear to thrive, the caterpillars have had a much harder time digesting the unpalatable leaves and most of the newly hatched critters have simply died, leaving a few small holes in the leaf. Only one plant had its leaves reduced to its midrib but even this one will survive as it is now putting out new growth. Interestingly it appears to be only the plants I have watered which are being eaten. There are a few plants which never get watered and these are looking fine.

A few people have asked about growing Woad in tubs or containers and this year we’ve had a few in containers ourselves and this has revealed a problem. One of our plants grown in a container in good compost and watered and fed regularly has grown large and is currently putting out a flower spike which will drastically reduce the amount of indigo in its leaves. Its very unusual to see Woad flowering in August so I can only assume we have pampered it too much – given it the ability to grow large enough to flower in one season. So if you are growing Woad in containers don’t give them too much fuss!

Chinese Woad – Isatis indigotica  

Isatis indegotica

Chinese Woad – about as big as it gets before flowering

Isatis indigotica

Planted out in April these Chinese Woad immediately produced flower stems

We have been growing this for two years now, desperately trying to find out how to stop it flowering a few months after planting. From what I’ve read I’m in good company and this is the chief reason Chinese Woad has not caught on as a source of indigo, despite the fact that it could potentially produce as much dye as Japanese Indigo. Some of the literature indicates that botanists think Isatis indigotica is basically just a variety of tinctoria (European Woad). However, if that is so it has evolved away from tinctoria to a considerable extent. Indigotica is clearly adapted to a much warmer climate and although still nominally a biennial it behaves much more like a half hardy annual. It will flower at any time of year, even in winter, so its rosette stage is always very short and the plant never gets very big. The leaves are a paler blue-green than European Woad and its yellow flowers will continue to be produced throughout the year provided the plants are watered and taken care of. Once the plant starts to flower the larger rosette leaves die off leaving only small leaves on the plant which are probably no good for dyeing. According to the Handbook of Natural Colorants, indigotica will be triggered into flowering if the night time temperature falls below 5°C, which makes it almost impossible to grow the plant to any respectable size here in the UK. Even in Mediterranean climates the plant can only usefully be grown in the Summer. From my experience the plant will flower even if you just look at it the wrong way so I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not worth the effort. It does grow very quickly however and if you were to grow it en masse and harvest the leaves before it flowered it might just provide a return for your efforts.

Another problem with Chinese Woad is its susceptibility to pests. Caterpillars and aphids like it very much and can easily destroy your plants.  And you guessed it, significant insect damage will also trigger flowering. In a mad moment I decided to see if Chinese Woad tasted any nicer than European Woad. But the taste test settled nothing, both plants are extremely bitter and fiery. I obviously don’t have the finer tastes of Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars!

Japanese indigo – Persicaria tinctoria

Persicaria tinctoria - Long Leaf variety

Long leaf variety of Japanese Indigo with curled leaves to protect itself the prolonged hot sun of 2018

This year we are growing the same three varieties as last year – Long Leaved, Broad Leaved and an Intermediate Leaved white flowered variety. There appears to have been no interbreeding from last year. This year the difference between the long leaf and broad leaf varieties is stark. The Long Leaf plant is very vigorous with dark green leaves. The Broad Leaf variety took a long time to get going as usual and suffered from its leaves turning red. I was initially confident that the red colour was partly due to the hot sunny weather we were having in early summer – the slow growing plants were getting roasted. But after a good feed (with chicken manure pellets) the plants started growing quickly with the new foliage a nice mid green despite the continued hot sunny weather. So a bit of a chicken and egg situation: was it the lack of fertilizer that caused the leaves to redden or simply that the young plant leaves, growing slowly, were getting a longer exposure to the hot sun?  The Long Leaf variety reacted differently to the hot sun with leaf curling , something I had seen last year but only on plants grown in the greenhouse.

Persicaria tinctoria

A bed of intermediate White flowering Japanese Indigo.

Persicaria tinctoria

Newly planted out Broad Leaf Japanese Indigo with sun reddened leaves.

Thus far we have only harvested the Long Leaf variety and used it in a little experiment comparing Jenny Dean’s extraction technique with the more often used long soak in cool water. The results will be written up in a later post. What I have also noticed is that we are currently getting a considerably better production of indigo from Woad than the Long Leaf variety of Japanese Indigo. Woad is well known for giving better results when the weather is hot and sunny. If the climate change predictions are correct and we continue to have hot summer weather then I think we would be better to return to growing mostly Woad. The Long Leaf variety of Japanese Indigo produces the least amount of indigo dye of the three varieties (see comparison here) but it does produce larger plants so perhaps still produces an equivalent amount of indigo per square metre.

Madder – Rubia tinctorumRubia tinctorum berries

Once again this year the madder plants are producing masses of berries. This is the third year running. In the previous 10 years or so the plants produced only a few. I have no explanation as to why this is.  I’ve grown plants in different soil, in planters and in the ground and all plants are doing the same. A result of the weather?

Rubia tinctorum

Madder plant obtained from Southwark Cathedral in early 2018.

This year we obtained a new madder plant sourced from Southwark Cathedral dye garden. The plant is quite different to plants I have been growing up to now (all of which were derived from a single seed over 10 years ago). This new plant has paler leaves with a different shape and it flowers about 3-4 weeks later. It will be interesting to see if the root yield is also different. I’m pleased to have been able to increase the genetic diversity of our madder as I’ve always propagated by root stem cuttings or from seeds from my own plants.

Wild Madder – Rubia peregrina

Rubia peregrina

Wild Madder in flower – Early July

We’ve been growing this plant for nearly three years now. It’s an evergreen but the tops do not appear to be totally hardy in the UK climate and were damaged by the winter frosts. This is the first year in which the plants (originally obtained from a wild flower nursery) are starting to look a bit happier. They are putting out new shoots from underground stems and flowering for the first time. It remains however a very slow growing perennial and I think it will take longer than Common Madder to produce a good root harvest so we are leaving it for another year.

I was given some seed from a friend from some wild plants growing on the south west coast which nearly all germinated though it did take well over a month before the first shoots appeared.

Saw wort – Serratula tinctoria

Serratula tinctoria

Saw-Wort plants with yellowing of leaves.

Serratula tinctorum

A self seeded plant with dark green leaves growing next to the transplanted ones with yellow leaves.

This native  plant continues to be disappointing. Not only do the plants remain small but about half of them suffer from bad yellowing of the leaves once planted out in the garden. I have tried practically everything to remedy the problem – fertiliser, Epsom salts and seaweed extract. There are some self-seeded plants which look very healthy so I do wonder if the roots are somehow getting seriously damaged during transplanting. It also remains likely that there is something wrong with the soil itself as other plants (Genista, a red scabious and a Purging Buckthorn shrub) are similarly affected.

Serratula tinctoria dye comparison

A comparison of our main yellow dye plants. Top is Weld, Bottom Right is Genista and Bottom Left is Saw-Wort

We did try dyeing with the Saw Wort this year and obtained a good buttery yellow. We were hoping it would be a nice lemon yellow like Weld and Genista so were a bit disappointed with that too.

Dahlia species

Dahlia Species

Bumble bee on single type dahlia grown from seed.

Dahlia Species

Dark Red Dahlia giving pinky purple and greens. Possibly “Nuit d’Ete” or “Black Cat”

The colour of Dahlia flowers has an effect on its dye but we did not appreciate by just how much until this year when we tried using some deep red flowers to dye with. We obtained nothing like our accustomed strong yellows with acid pH and strong orange with alkaline pH. This time we got green with alkali and blue/purple with acid indicating that the dyes in this dark red flower were the same as you find in red cabbage and some other red flowers. These dyes, although very pretty, are not light fast. Over the years of growing Dahlia we have narrowed down the varieties that produce the best results for the home dyer. These are yellow or orange double flowering pom pom types. The pom pom flowers are longer lasting and produce more dye – some pom poms are very large and yield a lot of dye but bees and pollinators are unable to assess the nectaries. We have tried to stay away from these but there’s no doubt they are the best for dyers.

Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare

Tanacetum vulgare

Tansy needs regular watering for healthy plants.

Often used by Scottish dyers as a source of yellow dye this plant has been growing in our garden for several years now but largely unused because the plant wasn’t very vigorous. There was never enough plant material to harvest and the flowers were disappointing. This year we planted a bed of Japanese indigo alongside so the Tansy benefitted from being regularly watered. The resulting Tansy flowers have been lovely so if you’re growing them keep them watered for best results.

Perennial Coreopsis –  Coreopsis grandiflora varieties e.g. Golden Joy, Sun Ray, Early Sunrise

Coreopsis grandiflora

Perennial coreopsis – plant breeders benefitting the plant dyer.

Coreopsis grandiflora

Bright orange on alum mordanted wool blanket.

These are double flowering perennials with deep orangey yellow flowers which produce a lot of dye. They are not as hardy as the growers would have you believe as half our plants died during the winter and only a few have recovered enough to put on a good show this year. However, many can be easily grown from seed so are not too expensive to grow. They make excellent bedding plants and produce a fabulous orange dye from the flowers. An example of the plant breeders unwittingly aiding the home dyer.

Dyer’s Alkanet – Alkanna tinctoria?Alkanna tinctoria

Alkanna tinctoria

Alkanet root. Bottom tip has had thin outer black bark removed revealing the dissapointingly white root.

This is the third year of growing and though I have not tried to extract any dye from its roots I am deeply disappointed to find that the roots are not red as they should be. I was suspicious as soon as I started to grow the plant from seed bought from the German Company Rühlemann’s. The plant seemed too vigorous with over large leaves and not hairy enough, but I persisted with it until it flowered. The flower shoots were tall (up to about a metre high) and not at all like the creeping wild flower growing around its native Mediterranean. The flowers when they finally appeared were the only part of the plant that looked like the pictures of Alkanna tinctoria seen all over the internet but the roots? The roots were white!

Doing some reading around this ancient dye plant I find that its qualities as a medicinal plant derive solely from the coloured substances in the root which were used as a dye, cosmetic and bio stain so you can imagine the way I feel after lavishing attention on this plant for the last three years only to find the roots are white! Recently I discovered one internet comment on the plant that says the cultivated version of the plant does not produce as much dye as the wild type. Well that’s some understatement. Of course it is possible that lavishing attention on the plant was entirely the wrong thing to do and I should have left it alone but it seems more likely that the growers have simply selected the seed year after year from the largest prettiest plants and in so doing have bred out the qualities that gave the plant its historical value.

Just to confuse matters Alkanna tinctoria has been and is also known as “Anchusa bracteolata, Alkanna tuberculata, Alkanna lehmanii, Lithospermum lehmanii”, and has been given various common names as follows Alkanna Radix, Buglosse des Teinturiers, Dyer’s Bugloss, Henna, Orcanète, Orcanette, Orcanette des Teinturiers, Orchanet, Radix Anchusae. Rühlemann’s who sell the seed are now calling it Alkanna tuberculata. There is certainly confusion on the identity of all these plants. Are they all the same or not. If there are any botanists out there  who can get to the bottom of this please please get in touch!

References

Philip John and Luciana Gabriella Angelini – Indigo – Agricultural Aspects. Chapter 7 of Handbook of Natural Colorants  Edited by Thomas Bechtold and Rita Mussak. Wiley Series in Renewable Resourses. (Available as free download).

Rühlemann’s  This German herb plant and seed supplier has a number of dye plants for sale including Chinese Woad and Long Leaf Japanese Indigo but it is primarily interested in the medical properties of the plants it sells and I get the impression they know little about plant dyeing.